The principal behind gold panning is really simple. Gold is heavy. Just about everything else is lighter. If you load a pie-pan shaped container with gold-bearing gravel and sand, proper agitation in water should cause the gold to sink to the bottom, while washing away the lighter stuff that rises to the top. Eventually, all that is left in your pan is the heaviest minerals, including (hopefully) some gold. It really is about that simple. Of course there is more to the story than that.
More photos and details can be found on my web site at http://www.mdpub.com/prospecting/
Step 1: Equipment Needed for Gold Paning
Start with the water-proof boots. Gold panning is done in the water, usually icy cold mountain streams. You'll want to keep your feet dry. Some nice warm socks (maybe a couple of pairs) also helps to keep your feet warm in that cold water.
The green thing is the gold pan. There are lots of different types of gold pans. They all work. so don't spend too much time obsessing over getting just the right kind of pan. I buy my gold pans on Ebay since there is nobody near me that stocks them, and it is usually the cheapest place to buy them.
Inside the gold pan is the sniffer bottle. It is used for sucking up little bits of gold out of your pan. More on that later.
The purple thing is a classifier, also known as a sieve or strainer. It is really optional, but I find it to be a great help. I'll talk about why later.
Next, you need some digging tools. A full-size pointed shovel will be real useful (remember what I said about this being hard work?). You'll also want a smaller spade and either an old screwdriver or some other skinny tool for cleaning out small cracks and crevasses in the rocks.
The small white plastic pail is used for collecting concentrates. You can use just about any sort of container for that. More on why this is important later.
Big five gallon buckets come in handy for lots of things. I usually carry several. You can pack a lot of the other equipment in them along with some water bottles and other supplies, and carry it all down to the creek. Once there, a bucket makes handy stool to sit on in the creek to do your panning and another serves to carry your paydirt from where you are digging it to where you are panning it.
Other nice to have accessories are gloves. A nice pair of rugged leather gloves to protect your hands from blisters while working the shovel and protect from cuts and scrapes while digging out cracks and crevasses with the smaller digging tools. Also a pair of rubber gloves to protect your hands from the cold water while panning. Also, a pair of tweezers to pick the larger bits of gold "pickers" out of your gold pan, and a glass or plastic bottle to put them in will come in real handy.
Naturally you'll want to take all the usual stuff you would take for any outdoor adventure in the wilderness. Things like a first aide kit, warm clothes, drinking water, mosquito repellent, sunscreen, etc.
Step 2: Find a Place to Go Gold Panning
If the stream isn't on public land, get permission from the owner first, or move on. Nobody likes trespassers. If the stream is on public land, make sure there isn't an active mining claim in the area where you want to do your panning. Also check with the agency that manages the land the stream is on. They may have restrictions on what sorts of activities are allowed there. If it is a designated wilderness area, then you probably aren't allowed to do any prospecting there. Even if prospecting and recreational mining activities are allowed on the land, there may be restrictions on where you can do it and what sort of equipment is allowed.
This photo shows my favorite little secret place to pan for gold. I'm not going to tell you where it is because I like the fact that it isn't very crowded. I will tell you what makes it such a good spot though. Not a lot of people know about it. It is on public land where recreational mining and prospecting is allowed. It has a history of producing lots of gold. It is not hard to get to. It is just far enough off the beaten path that most people miss it, even though the general area is overrun with people most weekends during the summer.
I usually go panning here in the late spring. The floods from winter storms and the early spring snow melt wash fresh gold into the stream every year. By late spring the water level is down and it has warmed up enough that the water is ice free (but still really cold). By summer though, this stream is usually bone dry. You can't pan without water.
Step 3: Digging the Paydirt
Where to dig? Gold is heavy. It is a lot heavier than most of the other rocks and minerals in the stream. It takes a lot of force from the moving water to keep gold suspended in the water and move it along the stream bed. So anywhere the water slows down is where the heaviest stuff suspended in the water is most likely to settle out. The inside of bends is one place. Water flowing down a stream moves slower on the inside of a bend and faster on the outside. So heavy material is more likely to settle out on the inside of bends. Also, anything that disrupts the flow of the stream, like a big rock, will create eddies behind it where heavy material will settle out. Dig behind and under big rocks. Also, any cracks or crevasses in the rocks are likely to catch gold. Gold will fall into the cracks but be too heavy for the current to wash it out again. Gold, being so heavy, tends to always sink as low as it can in the stream bed. So digging down in the stream bed to solid and impervious bedrock is often a good way to find the gold. Just keep these thoughts in mind as you hit the stream.
More info on gold prospecting can be found on my web site at http://www.mdpub.com
Step 4: Classify Your Paydirt
The second photo was taken after classifying. Now the gold pan only contains the smaller gravel and dirt. The big rocks are retained in the classifier.
One way to make life easier is to take the 5 gallon bucket and classifier to where you are digging. This kind of classifier is designed to fit on top of a 5 gallon bucket. You can classify your material into the bucket as you dig it and only carry the classified material to where you are doing the panning. That way you don't have to waste a lot of effort hauling the big junk rocks over there. Then you can take a break from digging, sit down, and pan out your bucket load of "pay dirt". To make classifying into the bucket easier, fill the bucket to the top with water. Classifying is easier in water. Wet dirt is real heavy though. So don't over-fill the bucket and dump out the excess water before hauling it to your panning site, or you will tire out fast and be really sore the next day. When these photos were taken, I just happened to be digging an area right next to where I was panning, so I classified directly into my pan.
Every source on panning I have ever seen has warned of the possibility of throwing away a big gold nugget with the rocks in your classifier. They all recommend sorting through and carefully examining the contents of the classifier rather than just tossing them away. I think the odds of tossing out a nugget too big to fit through my 1/2 inch classifier are astronomically low. So I don't waste a lot of time sorting through the junk that comes out of my classifier. I just pile it all up in a couple of spots and take the short-cut of running my metal detector over the piles at the end of the day, just to be sure. So far no big nuggets. But the day I don't double check will probably be the day one is there.
Step 5: Pan Out Your Paydirt and Recover the Gold
The basic idea is to agitate the material in the pan in water so as to stratify it with the heaviest stuff at the bottom and the lightest stuff at the top. Then you want to move the pan so that the water washes the lighter stuff on top out of the pan. Be careful not to pour material out of the pan, or you will lose gold. Periodically you will want to stop washing and re-stratify the material with more agitation. You want to make sure the gold is always at the bottom of the pan.
In the end, all you want left in the pan is heavy black sand and (hopefully) some gold. The second photo shows the results of panning down a nearly full pan of dirt and gravel to just black sand and gold. If this is what you see in the bottom of your gold pan, then you are doing it right.
The really tricky part of gold panning is separating the little bits and flakes of gold from the black sand. With a little practice, you will get the hang of swirling the black sand around the inside of the pan and concentrating the gold at the edge. If you are lucky, there will be a few bits of gold big enough to pick out with tweezers. I tweeze out these "pickers" and put them in my gold vial. The next photo shows a few "pickers" in my pan, along with a borderline nugget sized bit of gold. For the numerous smaller flakes of gold too tiny to pick out with tweezers, I use the sniffer bottle. Just suck up as many of the little shiny bits of gold as you can, while trying to get as little of the black sand as possible. Sometimes I use my finger to push the little bits of gold together into one spot, out of the bulk of the black sand mass, before sucking them up with the sniffer bottle.
There is still gold in that black sand. So don't discard it. After you get all the easy to remove gold out of it, dump the black sand in your concenrates pail. Then you are ready to load up the gold pan with more paydirt and pan some more.
Step 6: Pan Out Your Concentrates
This photo shows me panning out the black sands at home after returning home from Arizona. I pan them a few teaspoons at a time in a tub of water. I use a second pan in the bottom of the tub to catch the sand so I can pan through it several times and get out every bit of gold. My gold pan has riffles cast into one side of it which is very handy for this final stage of panning since they are really good at catching gold. They aren't absolutely necessary though. With care and practice, you could do it with any kind of pan. Once I get rid of the bulk of the black sand by careful panning, I use a powerful magnet inside a plastic bag to get the rest of the black sand out of the pan. Black sand is mostly magnetite, an iron mineral that is magnetic, so it will be attracted to a magnet. The magnet from a large speaker or from an old hard drive works well for this. Just remember to always use it wrapped in a plastic bag. Otherwise you will never be able to get the black sand unstuck from it. Once there is almost nothing but gold left in the pan, I suck it up with the sniffer bottle. Several times I have been surprised to find fairly large "pickers" in the pan that I somehow missed in the field. There will always be lots of little tiny bits of gold too. I always pan through the black sand several times until no more gold shows up. Panning into a second "safety pan" makes it easy to re-pan the concentrates as many times as you want to.
Step 7: Clean Out Your Snuffer Bottle and Enjoy Your Gold
Give gold panning a try. I'll bet you'll have lots of fun doing too.
More information on gold panning and prospecting can be found on my web site at http://www.mdpub.com/
Step 8: Update: Selling Your Gold
I couldn't stand to part with all my hard won gold. I kept some for the souvenir value and as a reminder of all the neat places I had gone and all the hard work I put in to mine it. The rest I carefully weighed up. It came to 6.1 grams of nuggets, flakes and dust. I sealed it in a new plastic vial and wrote up a little description of the contents. Then I consigned it to the auction house.
Just before the auction, the price of gold shot back up to about $900 per ounce. I was thrilled. The vial of gold sold for $150 at the auction. a little below market price, but then again, it wasn't pure gold. It was raw, unrefined gold with impurities.
The auctioneer takes a percentage off the top. This varies from auction house to auction house. You may want to shop around for the best deal if you go the auction rout for selling your gold. However, not all auction houses may get a crowd that that is interested in buying gold nuggets. I went with an auctioneer that regularly sells gold, and has a regular crowd of gold buyers, even though the auctioneer's fee was not the lowest around.
In the future, I may try selling my largest nuggets separately on eBay. Nuggets seem to go for a premium price there. Then I'll sell the rest of the flakes and dust at auction.
Now that I am making money at this, I guess I have lost my amateur status. Now I can call myself a professional gold miner. I can't wait to get out and find more gold.